“The queer community has a long history of making families from scratch,” says Erin Sandilands.
Her and her partner, Marcie Gibson, have done just that, building a nest of biological and non-biological folks into an open definition of family — one of thousands of such arrangements across the country.
In Ontario, February marks the first iteration of a new, annual civic holiday, Family Day. At first blush, the titling of the holiday is a conservative masterstroke (Alberta already has a Family Day, in contrast with Manitoba’s Louis Riel Day). But for gays and lesbians, “family” has always been a contested space, part of the amorphous project of queering all aspects of Canadian life.
It’s a calm Saturday morning — a bit eerie for a house with a toddler in it. Sandilands, speaking over the phone from her home in Montreal, talks about family’s many faces. Her family grew three years ago with the addition of Eli, the result of her partner’s pregnancy using the sperm of a friend — dubbed the “spunkle.”
“It was something that was really public from the start,” says Sandilands. Since it took a year for Gibson to conceive, “a lot of people were rooting for us, a lot of people feel like they had a part.”
And that goes beyond the spunkle, although he plays a role in Eli’s life.
“He used to come over every month for breakfast, and that tradition sort of carried on,” she says. “He’s still around. He’s poly, so we know his partners too.
“We’re a queer family,” says Sandilands. “We don’t see ourselves as a heterosexual couple with a fertility problem.”
The spunkle’s partner at the time, a friend of the couple, also remains in their life. Queer writer and sex educator Andrea Zanin — referred to affectionately as Eli’s “spauntie” — counts the lesbian couple as part of her overlapping circles of family.
For Zanin, family is a marker of many relationships, including her biological family, her leather family (Montreal’s Unholy Army of the Night) and her chosen family — a circle who she’s neither biologically nor sexually related to.
“The whole idea that blood is thicker than water, that’s not always true,” she says. “The idea that a relationship that’s not with someone in the same gene pool isn’t as valuable, doesn’t make sense.”
Speaking of values.
“There is nothing more valuable to families than time together,” Premier Dalton McGuinty said just days after winning a second term at Queen’s Park in October. “And yet it seems tougher than ever to find, with so many of us living such busy lives.”
“That’s why, on the third Monday of this coming February — and every February from now on — Ontarians deserve a new statutory holiday: Family Day.”
Seems innocuous, if saccharine, and perhaps it is. There were nine statutory holidays in Ontario before Family Day, and February marks the bleak mid-point between New Year’s Day and Good Friday.
And the terminology is charmingly vague, leaving Ontarians to decide for themselves which families are worth celebrating. Childless couples? Loving relationships with more than two? Non-monogamous couples? Families of one?
And yet there are hints. On the Office of the Premier’s official website, the Ontario Liberals have erected a veritable shrine to the McGuinty family. There, anyone with interest or patience enough can be regaled with stories from McGuinty’s childhood (he has five brothers and four sisters) and his own married life (he has four children, all born within five years of each other.)
In fact, McGuinty’s family status is so politically productive that the “Meet Dalton” section of his website has just three sections: “family,” “family history” and “on being premier.” The last of the three is just as hung up on the McGuinty clan; in that section we learn, for instance, that his biggest role models are his mom and dad.
All of which is very warm and fuzzy. And if that were the end of it, so be it.
But in contemporary politics, “family” is a particularly nasty code word, designed to exclude not just gays but urban dwellers, people with progressive values and career women. Family is evoked to reward homemakers (through tax breaks targeted at “families”), oppose abortion (“family values”) and censor our expression (since it’s not “family friendly”).
Tom Warner has been following the fundamentalist conception of the family for years. He’s the author of Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada. He’s also a key player in the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario.
“It’s been something that we’ve been critical of because of the ways it’s been used against us,” says Warner. “The whole family values campaign by the religious right has always said that queers undermine the family.”
And it’s not just that the term “family” has been used by homo haters.
During the long struggle for women’s emancipation, lesbian writers and others took great pains to explain why the idea is outdated. These critics cited the history of the family, a history where women were treated as property and exchanged between men in an economic and procreative framework that had very little to do with love — and for the biggest part of human history involved violence, rape and exploitation as definitional characteristics.
“In the broader context, historically, one of the objectives of gay liberation was a critique of family based on inequalities between men and women,” Warner says. “All of that got lost.”
Marriages of this kind still exist — and their persistence has become a poignant reminder of how deeply rooted this conception of “family” remains globally. They exist all over the world and before Canadians get too smug, it serves us well to remember the startling realities of domestic abuse in this country.
A Health Canada report by two Toronto social workers, Laurie Chesley and Donna MacAulay, and a University of Manitoba women’s studies professor, Janice Ristock, also confirmed, at least anecdotally, that domestic abuse is also rampant in the lesbian community.
“There are no reliable statistics that clearly demonstrate the scope of this problem,” says the report, published in 1998. “Lesbians must often rely on anecdotal reports to fully appreciate the scope of abuse within the lesbian community. The results from our survey indicate that 66 percent of the respondents (125 of 189) knew of lesbians who had experienced abuse in their relationships. Of our respondents, 37 of the 189 perceived themselves as having been subjected to abuse.”
And it is for these reasons — both historical and contemporary — that some feminists scoffed at “equal marriage,” Egale’s preferred term for same-sex marriage rights. There has never been anything “equal” about it; for gays and lesbians to opt-in won’t make marriage any more “equal” for the bulk of the world’s (female) participants.
And while that kind of anti-marriage argument has fallen out of fashion — nowhere more precipitously than in the queer community, where by 2000 it stopped being politically productive among those who wanted to opt-in — an analogous argument can be made for “family.”
But the reality is that gays still wrestle with family and family identity.
“Despite the changes in law, for many, many queer people the family is not a welcome place,” says Warner. “We’re probably the only group that has to deal with rejection from the family on this scale. No matter how the law gets changed, that’s still an issue that needs to be addressed.”
Many queers have found an antidote in chosen family. In the face of bio-family heartache — or because they feel more understood by others of the same orientation — folks have gravitated toward this particular iteration of love and friendship.
It’s not a new concept, but one that has certainly picked up momentum in the last 40 years. Chosen family has been vividly portrayed in popular culture — from the rascally, sexually fluid characters of Deny Arcand’s Decline of the American Empire (1986) to the gossipy but loving gay men of Terrance McNally’s Love! Valor! Compassion! (1994).
Andrea Zanin uses the term as “a marker of the solidity of a relationship.”
“This is people that you’re committed to supporting, working out your differences with, helping through tough times,” she says.
It’s a community model that’s shown resilience for gays, strengthened and reinforced by the way gays and lesbians supported each other during the AIDS crisis. Moreover, as the first wave of post-Stonewall gay pioneers in Canada ages — and as social supports for queer seniors remain painfully slim — chosen family is likely to be tested again. Interestingly, in both cases the importance of family is not tied to children. In fact, with both the AIDS crisis and the aging queer community, the benefits of chosen family are amplified by the fact that children are usually absent from the frame.
Even for those not in crisis situations, family appears to have staying power. But if it doesn’t mean anything more than “those we love”, are we prepared to abandon the kin- and clan-based family model which our age has inherited?
“You could look at it and say, ‘Family sucks. Screw you and all your definitions,'” says Zanin. “But I don’t think it’s a cop-out to want to be part of a family and to define it however I bloody well please.”
And even if the word has got mixed connotations, it also has utility, she says.
“Family is still a useful term if you want to adopt your partner’s three-year-old kid.”
It used to be that a same-sex family was persona non grata in Canadian courtrooms. Obligations toward partners (or, usually ex-partners) and non-biological children were decided informally. That left some people vulnerable to being economically set adrift at the end of a relationship. But these victories have come with a price.
The evolution that led to same-sex partner recognition began 40 years ago, with two key law reforms. One of those was the 1968 bill to decriminalize consensual sex between men. The other was the introduction of no-fault divorce the same year — legislation that ushered in the most sweeping era of modernization for what we now call “family law.”
Karen Busby is a law professor at the University of Manitoba, part of an influential cadre of litigators associated with queer lobby group Egale Canada. She cites then-justice minister Pierre Trudeau’s famous statement that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” as emblematic of both.
“I always remind my students that the statement, when it was made, was connected to both,” says Busby. “That the state shouldn’t stand in the way of divorce and it shouldn’t stand in the way of men having sex with men.”
Together, they set off a chain reaction. Law around the division of assets grew throughout the 1970s (before then, most men “never paid any support at all,” says Busby). It wasn’t until 1982 that husbands could be charged with raping their wives. That was “huge,” sparking a decade of legal evolution in the context of domestic abuse, she says.
By the ’90s, family law had become a complicated, intricate web of state-sanctioned rules, benefits and obligations. And it was in that context that gay and lesbian couples began to win battles to be included in the expanding web of law applied to couplehood.
There had been scattershot victories, but the seismic shift came in May 1999 with the release of a Supreme Court of Canada decision known as M v H. It obliged lawmakers to remove the opposite-sex definition of “spouse,” resulting in theModernization of Benefits and Obligations Act in 2000, which opened common-law relationships to gays. Marriage was soon to follow.
The evolution in law wasn’t all rainbows and floral bouquets. Gays didn’t face significant civil litigation at the end of their relationships until such relationships were recognized by the state. On the one hand, gays gained valuable rights — gay partners can now make medical decisions on behalf of their partners, for instance, and receive each other’s survivor benefits. But anyone caught in the nightmare of divorce proceedings is well aware of the additional entanglements that the battle for queer family has wrought. And the full fallout, less than 10 years on, has not registered.
In the end, the lesbian couple at the centre of M v H resolved their dispute without the aid of the court — in the way that queer couples have for centuries — and the decision that shook our “easy in, easy out” philosophy was decided on policy grounds only.
The reality now is that gays should visit a lawyer before shacking up. That’s because the laws surrounding common-law relationships are complex and from province to province. A couple can file joint income tax after living together for a year, but other clauses only kick in after three years. In some provinces (Manitoba and Saskatchewan), the assets you bought while together are divided automatically when you break up — but you can opt out. In other provinces, the division isn’t automatic but you can still be sued for support.
For those beginning relationships, that makes their love lives more complicated.
But the bigger threat is that the increasing focus of queer activism on partnership and family law reform (including the same-sex marriage debates) will further isolate those gays who aren’t interested in forming dependent relationships.
Tom Warner worries that a new generation of queers, too focussed on partnering, will lose the edge of experimentation that gays carry as their birthright.
“There’s a growing perception that somehow if you’re single, there must be something wrong with you — and some growing belief, too, that if you’re married that you’re somehow better than someone who’s single or promiscuous,” he says.
It’s really about gays participating in heterosexual hypocrisy. After all, as Warner points out, variance in straight orthodoxy — extramarital relationships, divorce, premarital sex — are at best tacitly accepted and at worst vilified.
And even though Canadians are staying single longer, living together before they get married and delaying their nuptials, “there’s still that element there that the most desirable relationship is coupling and marriage.”
If, as Warner says, part of the gay liberation agenda has always been a critique of the family, is the current crop of queer parents changing what it is to be family? Or is family changing what it is to be gay?
Even for those queers who have kids, the answers don’t look a lot like Leave it to Beaver.
Indeed, if the motley crew of parents who send their kids to Camp Ten Oaks is any indication, we don’t appear to run the risk of assimilation any time soon. Queer families are “incredibly diverse,” says Holly Wagg, one of the founders of Canada’s only sleep-away camp for kids in queer families.
“Many of the families do not have kids who were conceived in a same-sex relationship,” says Wagg. “We have parents where it’s a gay father and a lesbian mother who’ve intentionally gotten together to raise a kid. We have other families where it’s a gay dad and a straight mom, where one parent has come out later in life.”
Wagg, herself a mother of two, doesn’t see raising kids as buying into the mainstream. In fact, she says that queer parents are constantly educating those they interact with — teachers, medical professionals, other parents — because it’s impossible to hide their gayness when they’re all together.
In other words, while some of us can “pass” in the grocery store checkout line, queer families can’t, and that makes them front-and-centre advocates for queer causes.
“Being a parent and a member of the queer community, it’s still a radical idea,” she says.
Of course, perception is a complicated thing. Even if young gays aren’t miming straight norms, Warner’s point — that a new generation of queer youth are increasingly seeing couplehood and kids as the gold standard of queer relationships — remains a sticky one.
The concept of autonomous adults — that once children reach adulthood, they are free to do what they want — is, of course, a modern invention and one still not universally held even in Canada. Many gays from “traditional” families have brushed up against some manifestation of the older belief during their coming out, often with painful results.
The very process of urbanization and the rise of the state mean that we no longer rely on family as a source of housing, nourishment and work (that “nepotism” is now a bad word is good evidence of this, “meritocracy”, however naïve, being de jour). We no longer look to family to keep us secure, avenge wrongs done to us or protect our property (roles acquiesced to the state). And we no longer, thankfully, allow kin to choose our sexual partners.
In fact, a whole nest of relations — friends, neighbours, coworkers, governments — has bloomed over the last thousand years, gradually wresting social functions away from the family.
But the upstart of spousal support and the family law framework in Canada raises troubling questions about the role of the state in providing social services to those left in the lurch at the dissolution of a relationship. After all, if ex-husbands and ex-wives are now obliged to look after each other — often permanently — then the state can wash its hands of some of the functions it once purported to fulfill.
“I tend to be shy about using the term ‘family’,” admits Erin Sandilands. “I have a hard time with it and sometimes I don’t use it at all.”
Some people are put off by the term, and it’s got a commitment factor that scares others, she says.
Like an increasing number of queers — singles and couples — Sandilands and her partner (they’re not married, but “nobody’s married in Quebec,” says Sandilands) are also involved in the foster system. As respite foster caregivers, the couple looks after children for between one day and several months, a process that sometimes involves educating the little ones on queer issues.
But one place she doesn’t hesitate to use “family” is with Eli, her son.
Queers are the only minority group, it is often said, who don’t grow up in a family of the same ilk. Most Portuguese kids grow up in Portuguese households, Catholics grow up in Catholic households. Not so with queer kids, although for some that’s bound to change.
“This kid is queer from birth. No matter what his erotic orientation is, he’s queer.”
Family has proved itself to be both the carrot and the stick, both reward and looming punishment. Its history is a dark one, and its recent legal permutations are far from perfect. Family has caused a lot of pain to generations of queers as they come out, but chosen family has been there to support them as they negotiate the terrain.
Family may have very little objective meaning. Canadian law, for instance, doesn’t have much use for it. And that’s allowed people like Zanin, Sandilands and Wagg to reclaim the word for queer people. That process is just beginning. And with the introduction of Family Day, it’s a term we’re going to continue to grapple with — publicly — in the years to come.